I have come to view the years I spent in active addiction as my having been trapped in state of perpetual unconsciousness. That is not to say there was no mental or emotional activity. On the contrary, whether I was getting high or not, my mind raced incessantly and my emotions swung to extremes. I say that I was unconscious because all of this mental and emotional activity occurred without much if any apparent effort on my part as if it all were happening automatically. I have since learned that these reactive patterns were conditioned in me from a very young age and were likely reinforced by both genetic and other biological factors. Initially, alcohol and drugs soothed the perpetual state of anxiety (or, dissatisfaction, discontent, dis-ease, or dukkha, if you will) which pervaded my existence. However, these powerful chemicals ultimately turned on me as they acted upon vulnerable reward, memory, and motivation circuitry in my brain to ensure that I would fall into the vicious downward spiral of addiction. Thus the trap of addiction is complex and composed of myriad personal and environmental risk factors which conspire to form the trance of automaticity. And so, for me the process of recovery has essentially entailed an awakening to the causes and conditions of these automatic reactive patterns. More importantly, it has also been about learning to step out of and interrupt these patterns through cultivation of mindfulness.
Step 12: Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to addicts and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
The promise of the 12th step is that by the time we have reached this point in our program of recovery, we will have experienced a “spiritual awakening”. Exactly what that means and what that entails will certainly vary from person to person. However, the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous characterizes it as a “personality change sufficient to bring about recovery”. Thus the essence of a “spiritual awakening” for anyone is marked by a shift in attitude — or as Dr. Silkworth put it, “an entire psychic change” — brought about by working the preceding eleven steps and then implementing the foundational principles associated with each of them in one’s life.
Spirituality, Addiction and Recovery
Until recently, scientists have generally avoided the concept of spirituality in research and in clinical settings (Eliason, Amodia, & Cano, 2006). One explanation for this omission is that spirituality is often mistakenly conflated with religion – the latter being viewed as largely off-limits due to professional ethical considerations (Eliason et al., 2006). The rule of thumb has been that spiritual matters were best left to the realm of the clergy or mystics and kept outside of the boundaries of science.
Those who work the 12 Steps are promised to have a spiritual awakening — a notion which, at first, seemed to me to be unattainable if not outright fanciful. After all, how could someone like me, with all of my prejudices, ever become awakened to the mystery and beauty of this life? Looking through the prism of active addiction, life appeared bleak, purposeless, and vacuous. However, faced with no other alternative than to surrender or die, I set aside my prejudices and opened my mind to new possibilities. Now, having undertaken the work of the 8th and 9th Steps, I have no doubt that a spiritual awakening is not only possible for me, but that it has been happening all along.